Tempering Defensive Expectations?

Again this is needed to help stem the tide of message board posts like, “Nebraska has a ton of talent on defense, with Pelini in charge and getting them to play hard, I expect us to finish in the Top 10 in total defense in 2008.”

In case you’ve forgotten, the Huskers finished #112 in total defense in 2007. I’ll type that again slowly so we’re clear. The. Huskers. Finished. #112. In. Total. Defense. In. 2007. Given the magnitude of that little nugget of information, what kind of improvement can we expect on defense from a historical perspective?

For this analysis I once again looked at the 2000-2007 seasons and examined the rankings for each team in total defense across that span of time.

The Good News

It is possible to make a vast jump in the national total defense rankings in one season. Here are the Top 10 greatest single season improvements in total defense rankings between the years of 2000 and 2007.

1. 2006 Western Michigan +97 spots
2. 2004 Kent State +93 spots
3. 2004 North Carolina St. +88 spots
tie. 2001 Iowa +88 spots
4. 2006 Wisconsin +87 spots
tie. 2003 San Diego St. +87 spots
5. 2007 Kansas +82 spots
tie. 2007 Pittsburgh +82 spots
tie. 2006 Illinois +82 spots
6. 2006 Ohio +80 spots
tie. 2005 Army +80 spots
7. 2006 UCLA +78 spots
tie. 2004 Louisville +78 spots
8. 2001 Maryland +77 spots
9. 2005 TCU +74 spots
10. 2007 Temple +73 spots

For help interpreting these standings the 2006 Western Michigan defense improved 97 spots in the total defense rankings going from #108 nationally in 2005 to #11 in 2006. In addition, 2004 Kent State improved from #110 nationally in 2003 to #17 in 2004 and so on and so forth. Clear? Good.

So we can see that if Pelini can work his magic – like far too many fans assume at this point – and we have a season in 2008 that would place us in the above Top 10, we would improve somewhere between 73 and 97 spots in total defense. That would put us in the range of #15 to #39 nationally in total defense in 2008. I would be ecstatic with that kind of improvement and suspect we would certainly see our win total climb if that were the case.

Unfortunately we also have to look at…

The Bad News

During this analysis I also specifically tracked the team that finished #112 in the national rankings in total defense to see how they fared the following the season. During the years of 2000-2007 five teams that finished 112th in total defense improved their ranking the following season, while two saw their total defense ranking get worse the next year. Unfortunately, the improvement demonstrated by these teams was smaller in scale than those listed in the Top 10 list above.

In terms of improvement the teams would look like this:

1. 2002 Tulane +60 spots
2. 2001 Indiana +50 spots
3. 2003 Kansas +27 spots
4. 2004 Tulane +19 spots
5. 2005 Ball State +1 spot
6. 2006 Temple –5 spots
7. 2007 Rice –6 spots

First, look at the teams we find ourselves comparing the Blackshirts to! Scary.

Secondly, while there is certainly nothing “scientific” about this data, it is interesting to gain some historical perspective on the types of expectations Husker fans have already saddled the new coaching staff with.

Overall, I will be shocked if the defense doesn’t improve in 2008, but at the same time I’ll also be shocked to see us finish in the Top 20 nationally in total defense. Is it possible? Obviously the data shows us that type of jump isn’t unheard of, but we’re talking about a defense learning a new set of schemes and perhaps more importantly unlearning old (and dysfunctional)schemes and techniques.

Incidentally, in Pelini’s one year in Lincoln in 2003, Nebraska’s ranking in total defense improved 44 spots from #55 nationally in 2002 to #11 in 2003. That sounds about right for an exceptionally solid one-year improvement in total defense and I’d gladly take it come 2008.

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